Lets hear it for Volkswagen at the start of 2012. The German automaker has responded to demands from its works council by agreeing to stop the email server to its BlackBerry-using employees a half-hour after their shift ends,only restoring it 30 minutes before work begins the next day.
The agreement for now only affects about 1,150 of Volkswagens more than 1,90,000 workers in Germany,but its a start in encouraging employees to switch off,curb the twitchy reflex to check email every couple of minutes,and take a look out at things like family and the big wide world without the distraction of a blinking red light.
Now I know were all supposed to be grown-ups and switching off should be a simple enough decision,but the fact is addictions to BlackBerries and other hand-held devices are powerful and nobody expects addicts to self-administer the right medicine without some help. The Volkswagen decision reflects growing evidence of stress-related burnout tied to employees inability to separate their working and private lives now that developed societies live in a 24×7 paroxysm of connection.
Employee burnout has become an issue in socially conscious Germany the object of a Spiegel cover story following the resignation in September of a prominent Bundesliga soccer coach,Ralf Rangnick of Schalke,who complained of exhaustion. A Volkswagen spokesman in Wolfsburg told Bloomberg News the company had to balance the benefits of round-the-clock access to staff with protecting their private lives.
Inside those German private lives,Id wager,couples are experiencing the now near-universal irritation of finding conversations interrupted by a familiar glance toward the little screen,or conversations deadened by the state of near-permanent distraction from their immediate surroundings in which people live. Device-related marital rows must now be running close to backseat driving and how to raise the kids as the leading cause of domestic discord.
Connectivity aids productivity. It can also be counterproductive by generating that contemporary state of anxiety in which focus on any activity is interrupted by the irresistible urge to check email or texts; whose absence can in turn provoke the compounded anxiety of feeling unloved or unwanted just because the inbox is empty for a nanosecond; whose onset can in turn induce the super-aggravated anxiety that is linked to low self-esteem and poor performance.
Inhabiting one place that is to be fully absorbed by and focused on ones surroundings rather than living in some diffuse cyberlocation composed of the different strands of a device-driven existence is a fast-dwindling ability. This in turn generates a paradox: People have never travelled as much but at the same time been less able to appreciate the difference between here and there.
To be permanently switched on is also to switch off to what takes time to be seen. A lot of good ideas,as well as some of lifes deeper satisfactions,can get lost that way.
Companies are beginning to perceive these costs. Volkswagen is not alone in its move,which does not affect senior management or employees ability to make calls. Thierry Breton,the chief executive of Atos,the French information technology services giant,has said workers are wasting hours of their lives on internal messages at home and work. He plans to ban internal email altogether from 2014. A survey found Atoss 80,000 employees were receiving an average of 100 internal emails a day of which only 15 per cent were of any use. Henkel,the manufacturer of Persil detergent,declared an email amnesty between Christmas and New Year,saying mail should only be sent in an emergency.
One interesting recent case of employee burnout came at the very top,with the stress-induced absence for a couple of months of António Horta-Osório,the chief executive of Lloyds Bank. The Portuguese banker,who will return to work January 9,came after he was afflicted with what Sir Win Bischoff,the Lloyds chairman,called an inability to switch off.
Inability to switch off (ITSO) is a modern curse. Horta-Osório has said he made the decision after not sleeping for five days in late October and realising that there was,according to his doctor,such a thing as getting close to the end of your battery. He has now been pronounced fit by the Lloyds board but has said he will change his work habits,presumably in ways that will lower ITSO risks.
Ive just returned to work after a few days with my 90-year-old father in Scotland. He lives without any access to email or hand-held devices. It was interesting observing the effects of this vacuum on my teenage children,suddenly unable to centre their lives around their laptops (and the screen-lowering gesture that seems to accompany the entry of an adult). They started to read voraciously. They were communicative. They got up earlier. To be fair,they also had a Dad with them who was not device distracted.
Its the start of a new year,a time for resolutions. To each his own,but I know this: Nobody will ever lie on his or her deathbed and say: I should have kept my device on longer.